During the deadly October 7th terrorist attack by Hamas on southern Israel, it killed more than 1,400 people and took hundreds captive–men, women, and children, who are now considered to be hostages.
Hamas said it planned to use the captives to negotiate the release of thousands of Palestinians who are currently held in Israeli prisons.
Today, the number of Palestinians currently behind Israeli bars is 5,200, including 33 women and 170 children. If tried, Palestinian prisoners are prosecuted in military courts.
In Israel Palestinians can be imprisoned for almost any kind of political protest, even flag-waving is illegal.
At least 700 Palestinian children under the age of 18 from the occupied West Bank are prosecuted every year through Israeli military courts after being arrested, interrogated and detained by the Israeli army.
The most common charge is throwing stones, which is punishable by a maximum punishment of 20 years.
However, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has ruled out such negotiations and instead has focused on bombarding the Gaza Strip from the air and sea and has increasingly conducted land operations.
More than 9,000 Palestinians have been killed so far, including more than 3,700 children.
Here’s what is known about the captives:
How many captives are there?
The military wing of Hamas, the Qassam Brigades, said through its spokesperson Abu Obeida that the original number of captives held was 200 to 250 with Hamas holding about 200.
The spokesperson also said 50 captives have been killed in the Israeli air raids on the Gaza Strip.
According to the Israeli army, the number of captives is 240, and they include Israeli soldiers, civilians and foreigners.
Israeli authorities have not publicly named the captives so far, but the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that, according to army spokesperson Daniel Hagari, a “substantial” number are military officers.
How many foreigners are among the captives?
According to Hamas leader Mousa Abu Marzouk, the group considers captives who are citizens of both Israel and another country to be Israeli and will not release them until Israel agrees to a ceasefire.
“Hamas does not consider its captives to be Russian, French or American,” the Russia state news agency RIA quoted him as saying on Tuesday.
“All those captured for us are Israelis although there is an appeal to look at their original nationalities in the hope that this will save them,” he said.
Abu Marzouk said Russia, the United States, France, Spain, Italy and many other countries have called for the release of their citizens.
Thailand is in talks with Iran, an ally of Hamas, and other governments to secure the release of 23 of its citizens held in Gaza, according to its foreign minister.
Germany said at least eight Germans are being held captive. Argentina and the Netherlands also said they have citizens held in Gaza.
Who else is holding captives?
An unspecified number of Israeli captives are being held by civilian residents in the Gaza Strip, Hamas said.
“After the Israeli army’s defence lines were broken and the army’s Gaza Division fell [on October 7th], hundreds of citizens and dozens of fighters from various Palestinian factions entered the territories occupied in 1948 and captured dozens, most of them civilians,” Abu Marzouk said.
He went on to say that Hamas needs time to search for captives taken by residents to “classify them and then release the civilians among them who do not hold Israeli nationalities”.
How many captives have been released?
Four captives have been released so far after negotiations through diplomatic channels with mediation from countries that include Qatar and Egypt.
On October 20, Hamas released the first captives – US citizens Judith Raanan, 59, and her daughter, Natalie Raanan, 17 – saying it was for “humanitarian reasons”.
On October 23, two Israeli women – Nurit Cooper, 79, and Yocheved Lifshitz, 85 – were also released.
According to the Israeli military, a fifth person, a soldier, Private Ori Megidish, was rescued on October 30th during a ground raid inside Gaza.
Abu Obeida said she was not held by the Qassam Brigades and it was possible she was held by civilians or individual parties in Gaza.
What has Hamas said?
The Hamas leadership has repeatedly said it is prepared to carry out a prisoner swap.
“We are ready to conduct an immediate prisoner exchange deal that includes the release of all Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails in exchange for all prisoners held by the Palestinian resistance,” Yahya Sinwar, Hamas’s leader in the Gaza Strip, said in a statement on Tuesday.
Israel has doubled the number of Palestinian prisoners in its jails since October 7th from 5,200 to more than 10,000. This includes 4,000 labourers from Gaza who were working in Israel before they were detained at Israeli military bases.
Families of thousands of other Gazan Palestinians working in Israel said they have gone missing, sparking concerns from rights groups that they too might be in detention.
On Friday, Israel returned thousands of workers to Gaza, but details about them are unclear at the moment.
Abu Obeida said the Qassam Brigades will release some foreign captives from Gaza in the coming days without offering specifics.
What are the families of captives saying?
Israeli relatives are increasingly angry over the fate of the captives, especially during the military’s large-scale bombing campaign of Gaza, which they say is putting their loved ones’ lives at risk.
A representative for the families told Netanyahu they support a full prisoner swap.
“As far as the families are concerned, a deal of a return of our family members immediately in the framework of ‘all for all’ is feasible, and there will be wide national support for this,” said MeIrav Gonen, the representative.
Israeli families are increasingly angry over the “absolute uncertainty” they face over the fate of the captives, particularly in the heavy bombings, said Haim Rubinstein, a spokesperson for the Hostages and Missing Families Forum.
What has Israel said?
Netanyahu has made no commitment to any deal but told the families of the captives: “We will exhaust every possibility to bring them home.”
Defence Minister Yoav Gallant said Hamas has to be forced to the negotiating table and the issue is “very complex”.
“The more military pressure, the more firepower and the more we strike Hamas, the greater our chances are to bring it to a place where it will agree to a solution that will allow the return of your loved ones,” he said.
Sources: Al Jazeera, news agencies.